Putting enough fuel in the tank to take on the sport is essential, just ask Black Ferns Selica Winiata and Alana Bremner, who have just finished their first season of professional Super Rugby Aupiki.
Eighty minutes of big tackles, bursts of energy, and escaping attempts can be exhausting, so nutrition plays a vital role in keeping them fit, healthy and ready for the game.
The night before, it’s all about active hydration, then a good breakfast, Bremner said. His favorite dish on match day is spaghetti on toast. For Winiata they are poached eggs, avocado and vegemite.
“And later in the day, make sure you get the carbohydrate and protein balance and stay hydrated throughout the day,” Winiata said.
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Winiata said the players were taught that the drink bottle should be like a drip: dripping liquid throughout the day instead of withdrawing the entire bottle before taking the field. It’s not that nice to run with a lot of runny liquid and end up cramping, she said.
Then there are electrolytes and supplements that also aid performance and recovery.
Nutrition wasn’t something that came into play early in Winiata’s career, but she is now a top tier athlete, there has been more access to help and education on when and how to fill up.
“I think sometimes we underestimate what to have a protein bar or protein shake right after [exercise] can do. Sometimes you don’t feel hungry and so you think “I won’t have anything”, but to learn why we have to do it for our body, we make huge gains, “he said.
Some of these gains were seen in the recently concluded inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki competition. Winiata said Super Rugby was a great opportunity for the next generation of girls and boys to see women play the sport.
“As for nutrition, my advice would be not to go into the matter when you are in elementary school or very young. As long as you are a child, be a child. Go out, try everything. Don’t put tremendous pressure on yourself to become a high-performance athlete ahead of your time and exhaust yourself, “she said.
“As you get older you will begin to know the path you want to take, and when you reach a mature age that’s when you start thinking about the gym and nutrition.”
Alana Bremner’s daily meal plan, starts before 7pm:
● Breakfast – spaghetti on 2x toast, with 2x scrambled eggs
● Snack – A smoothie (banana, berries, oats, milk, yogurt + peanut butter)
● Lunch – pasta with tomato sauce, chicken, salad
● Pre-match meal: Wrap or make a sandwich with chicken and vegetables, nuts
● Part time – Healthspan Energy Gel
● Post-Game – Elite Healthspan Performance Cherry, Sushi, Chicken Sandwich
● All day moisturizing tablets
Black Ferns nutritionist Dr. Kirsty Fairburn writes a food menu for the team on game day, but it’s varied to ensure it will suit everyone’s tastes.
“Our priorities are to maximize carbohydrate and liquid intake, as well as reasonable amounts of fruit and vegetables and protein to prepare them. The food that every player likes to eat to get those nutrients varies and Alana’s is a great example of that, “he said.
Nutritionist Nikki Hart recommends a pre-game meal three to four hours before a game and a small snack one to two hours before the game, particularly if the games are later in the day. So refuel immediately after exercise, just like black ferns.
“A wonderful way to think about it is to imagine that your muscles are a dry sponge. If you take a dry sponge and put it on a wet bench, it will absorb nutrients very quickly. So it’s all a matter of timing, ”she said.
Right after a game, in the first few minutes, glucose is important and accessible via sports drinks, jellies or jets. Then, in the 15-30 minutes post-game, a carbohydrate to protein ratio helps with muscle recovery. That’s when protein powders come into play, he said.
For younger athletes and children, she recommends chocolate milk, cream of rice, or practical foods that children can take on the go. An hour or two after sporting activity, he recommends another meal.
Hart said you need about one gram of carbs per minute of exercise.
“No matter what sport you play, those components are valid,” he said.
Supplements can help, but for those who are weekend warriors, Hart recommends seeking guidance from registered sports doctors first.
“What’s your staple diet first?” she said.
“If you want to play in this [supplement] space, we must make sure that there is nothing that can contraindicate. What if you are taking medicine? And if you are a mom and are taking a statin for cholesterol, you know which supplements may be contraindicated for it.
A lack of fuel can lead to a relative energy shortage in sport (RED-S). It is caused by a mismatch of energy in and out during exercise and can lead to decreased body function.
Lead expert, Dr Sarah Beable, said that between 22 and 50 percent of elite athletes, both men and women, suffer from RED-S.
For recreational athletes, high-risk groups include teenagers in sports including triathlon, running, dance, cycling. He’s also seeing spikes in sports like weightlifting, crossfit, and some team sports.
“It is becoming more and more common in the fitness industry with the popularity of intermittent fasting and the growing obsession with ‘clean eating’ … [that are] orthorexic tendencies, ”he said.
“In my clinic it is very common to see an active woman exercising two or three hours a day, with intermittent fasting and a severe underestimation of the calories needed to sustain her activity, not to mention her life. This can lead to a number of health consequences ”.
Early signs could be fatigue, sleep disturbances, irritable bowel symptoms, recurrent colds, depressed mood, anxiety, recurrent or slow-to-resolve injuries, and lengthening or loss of menstruation, she said.
“Quite worryingly, and sadly increasingly common with a big spike in Covid times, is the increase in disordered eating practices that can lead to a clinical eating disorder,” he said.
As for supplements, he said athletes should be able to get nutrients from a high-quality balanced diet, but will recommend supplements when there is an obvious deficiency. Recent research by High Performance Sport NZ’s women’s health group found that 47% of elite female athletes were diagnosed with iron deficiency.
Dr. Beable recommends working with medical professionals and avoiding long periods without eating.
“Education is key … focus on high-quality nutrition rather than restrictions with a ready-to-eat post-workout diet,” he said.
“Avoid weight as a measure of ‘athletic success’ – your body composition will go where it needs to go when you fuel up appropriately for the needs of your sport. The number on the scale shouldn’t be a measure of self-esteem, and sadly I see it often.
“Ask for help in advance, this is very common. It is completely reversible and can have a very favorable impact on long-term health with the right help. “